The American “Fearsome Critters” and Other Tall Tales

A road sign depicting a drop bear, with the words "drop bear ahead" underneath

I’m an Australian, and playing some good-natured pranks on tourists is a time-honoured tradition. Our most famous of these pranks is probably the Drop Bear, an aggressive relative of the koala that drops from trees onto unsuspecting prey. I was delighted to discover that we are not the only country that does this! It’s a tradition in some places to prank people as part of a “hazing” ritual on hunts for creatures that don’t exist. 

These creatures could fall under the “cryptid” umbrella, but in my mind they’re a little different. These “fearsome critters”, as they’re known in North America, are like a mass inside joke: nearly everyone knows they’re entirely made up (except for Drop Bears, which are 100% real). 

“Snipe hunt” is another term for this sort of creature-related prank. I’d only heard it before from the movie Up, but apparently, in America, it’s a real thing. Snipes are actual birds, but the “snipe hunt” really just involves sending the hapless victim off in the woods until the joke’s over. This is often done as a sort of initiation ritual as a bit of good-natured teasing. The description of the “snipe” isn’t even consistent; sometimes it’s a bird with the neck of a snake, sometimes it’s taller than a human, and so on.

In a similar vein is the French Dahu. They are mountain-dwelling, goat-like creatures where the legs on one side are longer than on the other. This, apparently, allows the dahu to run around the mountain faster, but only in one direction. There are two different sub-species of this creature; one with shorter legs on the left, and the other on the right. A more elaborate version of this prank involves two people; one to hold the bag and catch it, and the other to hide and imitate the noise of the dahu. The dahu will turn at the sudden noise, and tumble down the mountain. 

The Fearsome Critters of North America stem from tall tales around the Great Lakes region. Often these critters are so ridiculous that they’re spoken of with the understanding that they don’t exist, while at the same time being presented as fact. I find this kind of storytelling very charming; there’s no trickery involved, just a fun way to bond around a campfire. We listen, not with the expectation that what we’re hearing is true, but because the sheer act of sharing a story is entertaining.

Some of these fearsome critters include the squonk, which dissolves into tears if anyone sees its ugliness; the spiny cactus cat which gets drunk off of cactus juice; the hoop snake, a snake that bites the end of its tail and rolls down a hill to catch prey; and of course the jackalope, the rabbit with antlers like a deer. There’s usually not a lot of depth to these creatures, so anyone can make up a tall tale about a sighting. Unlike most cryptids, fearsome critters aren’t malevolent; their mere existence is enough of a story.

I really recommend going through the list on the wiki page for fearsome critters! There are some brilliant ones out there, and I’ve just cherry-picked a few of my favourites. Some of them are just simply absurd, like the fur-bearing trout, and some of them are silly explanations for things going missing in the woods (see the axehandle hound that eats unattended axes). I love the fact that even though we know more about the natural world than ever, we continue inventing strange creatures just for the love of imagination. I hope we never stop telling these kinds of stories.

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